Dr. Womack’s Story

Addressing Violence, Trauma, and Poverty

Dr. Womack“When a kid opens up, it can be a flood of thoughts and emotions. We talk a lot about loss, about friends and family members that died. There have been times where I will hear a story from one of our participants in the afternoon, then hear it again on the nightly news.”

Violence. Trauma. Poverty. Together, these three issues contribute to what we call the cycle of risk, whereby unaddressed trauma worsens one’s quality of life, making it harder to rise out of poverty and raising the likelihood of future exposure to violence.1 Heartland Alliance works to interrupt this cycle by pairing trained experts with participants as they pursue a path toward safety, stability, and success.

Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Christopher Womack is one of those experts, serving Heartland Alliance’s Manuel Saura Center, a group home alternative for youth involved in the Cook County Juvenile Justice system. The impact of violence and trauma is evident on the faces of the young people sitting right in front of him.

For over 20 years, the Saura Center has worked quietly in the heart of a northside neighborhood providing a safe and welcoming residential setting where youth can receive counseling, treatment, and other supports. Rather than a detention facility where bars and locks can retraumatize youth, the Saura Center provides a therapeutic and educational setting with trauma-informed staff members specially trained in risk prevention.

Upon arrival, participants are paired up with a case manager who develops a care plan for their stay — including schooling and counseling plans. They are assigned chores and given opportunities to acquire new privileges through a scaled achievement plan. Most importantly, they are given a chance to feel vulnerable and begin to heal in a safe, nurturing environment.

“The pressure of poverty, food insecurity, community violence — these kids are already so resilient, but their day-to-day does take a toll. This place allows for that resilience to take hold.”

Dr. Womack’s reflective approach enables participants to feel more comfortable and safe to communicate. Residents at the Saura Center spend up to a month at the facility, and Dr. Womack uses this time to focus on helping participants deal with both the regular stressors of being a teen and the very real threats of violence, poverty, and trauma they experience. Through daily and weekly sessions, they gain an understanding of their mental health, and how to manage their own thoughts and feelings.

“It’s hard to break the inertia, the gravity of these situations. We’re trying our best to be a rocket-booster that can send them on a different trajectory.”

Dr. Womack believes that shift can come by providing care like he would give to any other young person. Working across the city with clients of all backgrounds, the inequities of mental health care are not lost on him. The mental health issues that Dr. Womack sees in young people across the socio-economic spectrum are often quite similar. His work helps bridge the equity gap and provides a ladder out of the canyon that is depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. For many, learning how to navigate through their feelings is a monumental first leap. He recalls one particularly long meeting, and a young man who candidly shared his feelings.

“This young man really opened up, he’s telling me everything that’s bothering him. All of a sudden he stopped and asked ‘Am I… Am I crazy?’ It broke my heart, this kid is struggling with PTSD and he thinks it’s his fault.”

In those moments, Dr. Womack has an opportunity to sideline the “normal” narrative and provide a seed of hope and positivity to lead them on a path to break the cycle.

“We are perpetual optimists at the Saura Center. This early intervention is crucial for these kids, and we will do whatever we can to make sure that we make a real impact.”

1Please refer to Cycle of Risk: The Intersection of Poverty, Violence and Trauma, Heartland Alliance’s Report on Illinois Poverty.

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